Team Health Report: New York Yankees
by Will Carroll
Larry Lucchino needs cable. The Star Wars comparison is tired. When I look at the Yankees, I don't see an Evil Empire...I see the Sopranos. Joe Torre just needs a cigar to be Tony Soprano, the godfather with panic attacks. Derek Jeter can be Christopher, with his defense as his "little problem," and the gorgeous girlfriend. Steinbrenner is up in the front office playing the part of Uncle Junior, powerful and acting crazy, with Cashman running in and out, taking care of his needs just like Bobby Baccalieri. Don Zimmer may look more like Burt Young than Little Steven, but he's still Silvio Dante in this baseball mafia. I'll let you figure out who else fits where, but you can see how it works. Just no "Big Pussy" jokes, please.
Before I start into the heart of the report, just look at that lineup. Nick Johnson is one of the best young hitting prospects in the game and he'll bat ninth. This is a team that realistically has a shot at having nine All Stars. Nine.
One of the common mistakes in baseball is thinking that a younger team is cheaper and healthier. Cheaper, sure, but healthier doesn't match up with the findings. While a player is more likely to have a strain as he gets older, he's less likely to have a torn ligament or tendon. There's no significant increase in time on the List. There's no significant increase in likelihood of injury, though some of this can be chalked up to a survival bonus. In fact, when it comes to pitchers, older is somewhat better!
This challenge to conventional wisdom explains the paucity of yellow and red lights above. With maturity, the Yankees have filled their roster with players who have shown an ability to stay healthy, while the team's depth allows injuries to cost the team less in replacing the player than with most other teams. The Yankees are about league average when it comes to injury prevention. Surprisingly, they're also around average when it comes to dollars lost to the List.
When it comes to position players, the Yankees have very small concerns. While Jorge Posada is catching a heavy load that is bound to catch up with him at some point, the point hasn't been reached yet and there's no reason to believe that it will occur during 2003. Posada would surely appreciate some quality backup at some point in his career. Rondell White would, of course, get a yellow light, but he'll be bench depth rather than a starter this year. Alfonso Soriano had some off-season "shoulder" problems that seem to be more of a convenient excuse to get out of some commitments than an actual injury concern.
The major concern in the field is Bernie Williams. Williams put up another 900 OPS despite dealing with shoulder problems, hamstring problems, and a swollen knee for the greater part of the 2002 season. His shoulders were the biggest concern, but he had an MRI before leaving for the Japanese tour that came back golden. I'd like it better if Bernie was able to move to a corner outfield slot, but while some decline with age is likely, Bernie will probably be near his normal 900 OPS again.
Nick Johnson had a recurrence of the wrist problem that ruined his 2001. There's some worry that the wrist is becoming a chronic problem, but MRIs indicate that this time around, it was simply a bone bruise. Johnson's not showing a great deal of durability but he is protected at DH. I'm putting a precautionary yellow light on him, both due to his history of problems and the veritable epidemic of wrist problems among first basemen.
The problems Mariano Rivera had last year are well chronicled, but there's little in the way of facts regarding his injuries. Much of this can be laid at the feet of the always tight-lipped Yankees. After a New York Post writer misrepresented something I'd said in a UTK, Brian Cashman nearly shut off the flow of information entirely. Most concerning was the pattern of the injury, though--Rivera was rushed back in early August only to be back on the DL and into Jim Andrews office less than two weeks later. There didn't appear to be any real reason why he should be rushed. Rivera came back from his third List stint and pitched effectively, if not approaching his previous dominance. Sources insist that his injury was purely muscular and the reports at the time always said "shoulder strain." The rehab, however, seemed to be approached more like a rotator cuff impingement.
Long term, Rivera is facing a similar situation to Pedro Martinez. He'll have to remake his body and build stamina to keep his arm healthy. While Rivera is a reliever and pitches less innings than Martinez, he's also not getting as regular a rest pattern and seldom is able to give less than maximum effort during an outing. I'm very concerned at Rivera's ability to go an entire season without injury. Much will rely on the remade bullpen behind him. With Steve Karsay out for the early portion of the year, the Yankees have no clear "go to guy" which could put more pressure on Rivera. The red light indicates that I think Rivera will have a year much like 2002--effective when healthy, but likely to miss something on the order of a month.
Andy Pettitte just worries me. He's one of those pitchers that every time he throws, I'm worried I'm looking at his last pitch or that he'll be one of those lefties that snaps his arm in half like Tom Browning. Nate Silver recently characterized my feelings on Pettitte just slightly off from how I would express them; where Nate said that Pettitte has difficulty pitching below 100%, I'm reasonably sure that he's NEVER been at 100% during his major league career. Last September, in an interview with David Srinivasan, I made the comment that Pettitte was likely pitching at 85-90% health. My comment to Nate indicated that I don't know how much more Pettitte can drop off and continue to be effective. Other than Roger Clemens, I think Pettitte could benefit most from an occasional extra day off. With six solid starters, I think the Yankees could bring in Jose Contreras or Sterling Hitchcock for an occasional start and benefit the entire staff. I also thing that the Yankees would be the perfect team for a Cluck-Fuson Tandem Starter approach (each game would be pitched by two starters, each going roughly four innings) but a team with the success of the Yankees seldom has a need (or desire) to innovate.
David Wells gets a yellow, but dim. Despite his weight and his off-field antics, Wells has seldom missed significant time with injury. He had only mild back problems last season and was able to deal with them quickly and actually came back sharper. Again, Wells can afford to miss a start or two during the season if he begins to break down, but I expect him to make 28-30 starts and pitch effectively.
Say what you will about an Evil Empire, but the Yankees money has really only bought two things--depth and the ability to buy their way out of personnel mistakes. Operation Shutdown killed the Pirates payroll last year, but bringing in Raul Mondesi is barely a blip for the Yankees. As other teams find their depth in the freely available talent in the Rule 5 or non-tender arenas, the Yankees will find that their advantage not only is eroded, but may work against them. Despite a roster that is as dominant on paper as any in my lifetime, it's my belief that we're seeing the last year of the current Yankee dynasty.
Will Carroll is an author of Baseball Prospectus. You can contact him by clicking here.